Charles Darwin was born on 12th February 1809. He didn’t do especially well at school, being more interested in bugs and beetles than in Latin grammar. His father thought he ought to study medicine, but Charles quit medical school after less than a year, saying he couldn’t stand the sight of blood. He went to Cambridge instead, and developed an interest in geology and natural history.
In 1830, one of Charles’s teachers learned that they needed a naturalist on a Royal Navy survey ship, the Beagle, which was due to sail for South America, and Charles leapt at the chance to go. The Beagle surveyed the remote Galapagos Islands, where Charles’s observations led him to his theory of evolution by natural selection. The flora and fauna in the islands is unique; of the 56 species of birds on the islands, 28 occur nowhere else on the planet. Charles reasoned that the creatures of the Galapagos hadn’t been created, as fundamentalist Christians like the Beagle’s Captain Fitzroy believed, but had evolved from similar ancestors carried on floating vegetation from the mainland. The more he developed his theory, the more Charles realised that it would upset established opinion in Victorian England, and since his natural inclination was to enjoy a quiet life, he didn’t publish his hugely important book “On the Origin of Species” until another scientist threatened to beat him to it.
Three and a half billion years ago the earth was uninhabitable. It took half a billion years for simple organics compounds to be formed and a lot longer for DNA to develop, which made more complex life forms possible. The trilobites and ammonites didn’t appear until about 570 million years ago, insects 300 million years ago, and the dinosaurs were relatively recent. If we represent the history of earth with a diagram of an hour in time – a clock face – we human beings have only appeared with the last minute or so. I think that’s a far more interesting, and credible, story, than the Genesis myth. It’s all pretty amazing.
A great man like Charles Darwin deserves to be honoured as someone who helped us to understand where we came from, over trillions of years. Some are campaigning to make 12th February a public holiday by the year 2009, the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth. Whether or not they succeed, there’ll be an international celebration of science and humanity as exemplified in the life, work and influence of Charles Darwin.